Forty-seven years ago last month I returned from an outpost in the Mekong Delta to graduate school at MIT, from which I had been drafted two years earlier. For the past two weeks I have been dredging up wartime memories, spurred by the epic documentary produced by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for PBS.
Not that my war bore much resemblance to the war so vividly depicted in the film. The filmmakers devote most of their footage to bloody battles and bloody-minded politicians. The contrast between the two constitutes the moral of their work. They want to honor the soldiers on both sides for the authenticity of their courage and sacrifice, which they contrast with the mendacity of those who send them off to die. “The blood is real,” novelist Tim O’Brien says, leaving the viewer to infer that the rest—the political deception and self-deception, the continuation of the Cold War by other means, the high-flown rhetoric of national liberation and social revolution—was something else, not real, but merely a series of tales told by lying idiots.
“If you pull out now, Mr. President,” Henry Kissinger told Richard Nixon in 1970, as I was filling sandbags in Cao Lanh, “the regime in Saigon will collapse, and some will say you spoiled a lot of lives for nothing.” It would be better, he added, to wait until after the 1972 U.S. presidential election. He was no more concerned with the lives that would be “spoiled” in the interim than Le Duan, secretary-general of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, was concerned with the tens of thousands of Viet Cong lives that would be lost when he ordered them to emerge from their hiding places and rise up in what was to have been the final assault of Tet ’68.
This style of storytelling makes for a pleasing symmetry. The emotional impact is as direct as a shot to the gut. Who fails to bleed with John Musgrave as he describes the face of the surgeon peering down at him in triage and declaring that he can do nothing for him? Who can help gasping for air upon hearing the testimony of the North Vietnamese soldier recounting how the napalm dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail sucked up so much oxygen that each lungful of air sapped the life of the man or woman who breathed it? Who can fail to burn with rage at the atrocities committed by both sides, or sympathize with those who so earnestly atone for having committed them?
In the end this symmetry is supposed to underwrite the hopeful note of reconciliation on which these 18 hours of remembrance end. Former GIs return to ‘Nam and are embraced by their erstwhile enemies, with whom they share the certain knowledge that war is hell. No doubt there is something ineffable that those who have experienced war share with one another and cannot share with those without knowledge of what lies beyond good and evil.
But when I think back on my time there, it is not the symmetric experience of friend and foe that is uppermost in my mind. It is rather the fundamental asymmetry of the war. Some Americans endured the horrors of combat on which the filmmakers focus, but most did not. For every grunt on the line, there were eight or nine REMFs (“rear-echelon motherf----rs”) who rarely if ever fired a shot in anger. We killed at a distance. Many of us lived fairly comfortable lives, with hot meals, hot showers, flush toilets, and fancy sound systems purchased at a steep discount from the PX. But we were cogs in a powerful killing machine.
While the documentary touches briefly on Richard Nixon’s cynical plan to “Vietnamize” the war to cover the American withdrawal, it devotes little imagery and only slightly more narrative to the “Americanization” of Vietnam. The U.S. built a parallel society in Vietnam, within whose cocoon the vast majority of American personnel went about their business without contact with either the ambient society or the grunts’ war on which the filmmakers lavish their attention.
Tan Son Nhut airbase was an American town in miniature, with familiar gas stations at street corners, McDonald's franchises, and an air terminal with ticket counters and baggage check-in. You could read Stars and Stripes, listen to Armed Forces Radio, and hardly be aware that this wasn't Kansas anymore. If you were a lifer in the military or a civilian muck-a-muck, you could live better in ‘Nam than in the States, waited on by servants while climbing the career ladder more rapidly than was possible in peacetime.
Even the boondocks began to look like home. Crum Compound, where I was stationed on the Mekong River, was not quite Topeka-in-miniature, but it wasn’t Hamburger Hill either. The troops diverted themselves with volleyball and weekly films, the occasional Filipino touring band, and a monthly Las Vegas night. The Creedence Clearwater Revival, blaring from Pioneer speakers and JVC amplifiers, animated the crowd that gathered each time the team doctor fed a duck to his pet python. My comrades-in-arms liked to bet on how much time would elapse until the snake would strike after the duck was introduced into its cage.
Yet occasionally during these festivities the ground would shake from a B52 strike 40 or 50 kilometers away—a strike guided by the same men who spent their evenings laughing at the antics of the soldiers in Roger Altman’s satirical film MASH. The bombs that fell in the remote Cambodian jungle were the very ones that sucked the air from the lungs of our unseen adversaries, one of whom has now been given voice by Burns and Novick half a century after the fact.
Of course no single work can capture all the varieties of horror that war encompasses, but this is the memory that haunts me: The memory of fresh-faced American boys directing all the industrialized mayhem the world’s greatest military power could muster onto nameless targets identified only as coordinates on a map. In The Vietnam War we hear the story of a GI who crushes the trachea of an enemy whose breath he can smell in the confines of a dark tunnel. He is scarred by the memory. I could not smell the breath of the people I helped to kill. I did not crush their tracheae. But I robbed them of their breath just the same, and not just one at a time.
The remote-control war in which I participated is not the one that comes across in the documentary. The Burns-Novick story is an immemorial tale of men at war, almost Homeric in its directness and simplicity. The filmmakers thus spare themselves the difficulty of representing the obscenity of a superpower trying to bomb a Third World backwater “back to the Stone Age,” as Curtis Le May recommended. They deserve credit for reminding Americans of the perversion of the democratic process that led this country into its greatest foreign policy debacle. But their aesthetic and, yes, political choices have led them to overlook the peculiar horror of modern warfare, which of course did not begin or end with Vietnam. I honor their achievement but can’t help feeling that they nevertheless missed an opportunity. We had no drones in Vietnam and therefore had to rebuild Kansas in the rice paddies, but thanks to technological advances, today’s pushbutton warriors can guide their bombs to their targets from offices in Topeka and drive home to their families at night. The hubris of asymmetrical warfare remains, and hubris, as the Greeks knew, invariably calls forth Nemesis.